Why Kids Need Unstructured Outdoor Play

Photo: Wildrock/Jack Looney

This Virginia nonprofit has one message for kids: Go wild.

When Meg Phillips (she/her) first heard of Wildrock, she was a young parent struggling to help her 4-year-old daughter return to post-pandemic life. At this point, daycares and schools had been closed for nearly a year and a half. Returning to social situations would be a major adjustment.

To ease the transition into the 2021-’22 school year, Phillips first signed her daughter up for a multi-week camp at Wildrock, an enclosed, three-acre patch of forest in Crozet, Va. 

“The program basically takes a group of little kids out to play in the woods every day, which was exactly what my kid needed,” Phillips says. At first, her daughter acted reserved. By the end of the program, however, Phillips’s daughter was active, curious and engaged. Wildrock, she says, “really gave her the confidence and empowerment to explore and take charge.” 

Her daughter is just one of many kids who’ve had their lives changed by Wildrock’s programming. Established in 2017 by Carolyn Schuyler, the licensed clinical social worker created the nonprofit to address nature deficits in modern kids’ lives. Schuyler knew that American kids were spending up to seven hours per day staring at screens. And as a mental health professional, she understood that a lack of free, unstructured play was having an impact on kids’ health and happiness. 

So, Schuyler started fundraising. A few years later, she and a small army of volunteers built Wildrock, a place where kids could explore at their own pace (in a safe, enclosed area) with limited instruction and direction. But Wildrock’s mission doesn’t stop there. Schuyler and Phillips also leverage Wildrock’s resources to help promote nature equity, or equal access to green spaces across socioeconomic levels.

Photo: Wildrock/Jack Looney

“Access to nature is a social determinant of health,” Phillips explains. “Study after study shows that it benefits your mood, your mental health, and your physical health.” The truth, unfortunately, is that many underserved populations are cut off from green spaces

To help bridge those gaps, Wildrock offers free public days at its forested playscape. Other days, it reserves the grounds for members of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond (DSAGR), the Virginia Institute of Autism, or other groups that might not otherwise get free, unstructured outdoor play. 

Every Saturday, Wildrock hosts free field trips where Black educators and mentors take Black youth hiking and exploring. It’s just one effort to help make the outdoors feel safer and more welcoming for historically excluded groups.

And those efforts don’t end at the property boundaries. If you can’t make it all the way out to Crozet (30 minutes west of Charlottesville), Wildrock will bring nature to you.

“More than 50% of our programming takes place outside of Wildrock,” Phillips explains. On those days, she and other staff members meet up with groups from inner-city schools, nonprofits, and corporations alike. They bring animal stuffies, wood blocks, and other materials to a nearby park or green space. The local kids then get to roam and play with the toys outside, all while learning about animals and why habitat matters. 

“That plants the seed,” Phillips says. “As they grow up, our hope is they will become stewards of nature. They’ll become conservationists, biologists, or whatever, and inspire others to love being outside, too.”  

— In support of Wildrock’s mission to improve outdoor access in the Charlottesville community, the Public Lands Fund has named the organization as a 2022 grantee. 


All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.